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Manitoba History: Review: Michael Ewanchuk, Spruce, Swamp and Stone: A History of the Pioneer Ukrainian Settlements in the Gimli Area

by John C. Lehr
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Anyone familiar with the Interlake district will admit that Spruce, Swamp and Stone is an apt title for this history of the Ukrainian pioneer settlements near Gimli. The Icelanders had pioneered the Interlake area as early as 1875, but they had clung to the shores of Lake Winnipeg, never venturing far inland to tackle colonization of the spruce woods in the central Interlake. These rocky, wooded, and swampy lands were not attractive to most settlers entering Manitoba and were ignored, until, in 1897 the Commissioner of Immigration at Winnipeg established a small colony of Ukrainian immigrants in the Pleasant Home district, adjacent to the Icelandic reserve. During the next two decades hundreds of Ukrainian immigrants settled these marginal agricultural lands lying to the west of the area of Icelandic settlement.

The Ukrainian settlers faced some formidable obstacles in their attempts to settle this area: a harsh climate, poor land, woefully inadequate communications, social prejudice, economic exploitation, and a Provincial government largely indifferent to their plight. They made remarkable progress: clearing land, and establishing schools and social organizations. Some pioneers even managed to send their sons and daughters to higher education and careers in the professions.

Spruce, Swamp and Stone traces their struggle for the first twenty-five years of settlement. The book is divided into five major sections, each section dealing with a major theme: The New Country; First Organizations; The Period of Change; The Years of Adjustment; and the End of the First Quarter Century. Within each section chapters are devoted to specific subjects. The section of “First Organizations,” for example, contains chapters dealing with the organization of schools, religion and churches, and the organization of the first cultural groups.

The author, born and raised in the district, is the son of a pioneer and community leader, and knows his subject well. In this sense the book stands above many others of the same genre. The study is well documented and is solidly based upon data gleaned from records of homestead entry, contemporary English and Ukrainian language newspapers, the correspondence of the Department of the Interior, and a variety of other archival material. Interviews with pioneers undertaken by the author as early as 1935 indicate a long standing interest in the history of the Ukrainian settlement in the Interlake area. This has afforded him a fine appreciation of the effect of topography upon land quality and settlement and has given him a clear understanding of the pioneer milieu.

Despite the author’s attachment to the people and area of which he writes, his work is remarkably free of any ethnic bias. His account of economic exploitation of Ukrainian settlers is sober, if not dispassionate, and nowhere does he engage in the emotional histrionics typical of Myrna Kostash’s and Helen Potrebenko’s recent works on Ukrainian social history.

Spruce, Swamp and Stone does not pull any punches when it comes to detailing inter-group conflicts. With some energy it chronicles details of land swindles, economic exploitation and political manipulation of Ukrainian settlers by English and Icelandic Canadians. It is indeed refreshing to find an account free of the usual platitudes which suggest that inter-group harmony was the norm on the frontier.

Intra-group conflicts, such as the often bitter factionalism which split the Ukrainians into Russophile communists and Russophobe “nationalists” on a political basis, and into Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians, on a religious basis, are not examined with the same rigour, however. This is probably a legacy of the book’s own history. It began as a series of articles, in Ukrainian, which appeared in the Ukrainian Voice in 1976 and later saw publication in book form. Spruce, Swamp and Stone is by no means a straight translation of the latter, for chapters of little interest to Anglophone readers were deleted and new material was added, but the author has still avoided some issues which can still raise strong emotions within the Ukrainian community.

Both the social historian and the lay reader will find much of interest in this book. It offers some new insights it the process of settlement on marginal lands; some fascinating, previously unpublished information on the costs incurred in establishing a farm in the Gimli area in the pioneer era; and a good overview of the struggle faced by many similar Ukrainian communities in their quest to establish themselves socially and economically in the new land.

In many ways Spruce, Swamp and Stone overcomes the limitations of the usual local history. It is no mere catalog of “firsts,” no idle list of prominent citizens. It is a serious attempt to provide a comprehensive view of the process of settlement in Manitoba. It deserves attention from interested in the process and consolidation of settlement the Canadian West.

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